Monday, June 27, 2011

Top Ten Horrors of New Parenthood

My wife's cousin and his wife are now the proud parents of a truly beautiful baby girl. Honestly, she really is lovely. I see pictures of newborns posted on facebook all the time--by preening parents and grandparents--and my usual thought is, "Another space alien." But this baby is, well, wow.

This beautiful new life reminded me of something I wrote not quite eight years ago, as my annual Halloween Greeting for 2003--which means I wrote it about six months after my first child was born. Since this is Claudia's first child, I thought it would be fitting as a way of honoring this important milestone to post here what I wrote back then. Also, with such a lovely child it may be easy to lose sight of the raw horror, anguish, trauma--and, well, grossness--that are in store. Thus I bring you...

The Top Ten Horrors of New Parenthood:

What follows is a list of the top (bottom?) ten horrors of new parenthood, each followed by an account of my own personal encounter with it. I should note up front that the ensuing list is necessarily incomplete. Having been a father for less than six months, I am certain that there are horrors I have yet to encounter (“Can I borrow the car?” tops the list for many of my friends with teenage children). Furthermore, since much of my early memory of fatherhood is blurred by Horror #5, it is quite possible that there are tribulations I have forgotten. Nevertheless, I have sought to be diligent in uncovering the seasonally appropriate spooky, creepy, and just plain disgusting dimensions of new parenthood.

Horror #1: Getting the Watermelon Through the Nostril

Little needs to be said here. When Tanya and I went to the hospital, there was talk of what is deceptively referred to as a “natural childbirth” (imagine fields of daisies and golden sunlight and a lovely pregnant woman in a pale linen dress skipping through the tall grass while sipping an organic yogurt drink). In fact, through approximately 22 of the 25 hours of her labor, there was still talk of such a thing. Apparently, until that point, the pain was only intense or, at worst, excruciating.

But then there came a point (the point at which drugs were administered to induce a stalled labor) when the word “pain” proved to be an inappropriate term for Tanya’s experience—in much the way that “unfortunate” is inappropriate to describe a meteor striking Earth and exterminating all life, or “banana” is inappropriate for the Bush administration’s current policies in Iraq. Apparently, the proper word at this point was not “pain” but, rather, “Epidural!” (hissed out between inarticulate screams).

Horror #2: Disturbingly Perky Ob/Gyn

When, like an angel of mercy, the anesthesiologist descended upon Tanya to plunge a magic needle into her spine, Tanya’s ob/gyn, whom we'll call Dr. G, was not far behind. Dr. G is articulate, competent, dedicated, and always up on the latest research. She has a talent for putting her patients at ease.

She is also perky. Imagine Meg Ryan as a physician and you wouldn’t be too far off. My wife adores her and professes to miss her now that she is no longer pregnant and hence can no longer regard Dr. G’s office as her second home. I don’t mean to contradict Tanya’s judgment here, but I saw what I saw in that delivery room.

Let me explain. The pushing phase of Tanya’s labor was the quickest and most satisfying of the whole 25 hour process (Tanya’s a good pusher). The first glimpse of Evan’s head—covered in dark hair—was amazing. And I must admit that, between bouts of pushing when the top of Evan’s hairy head was still visible, I was tempted myself. But Dr. G went beyond temptation. With a mischievous glint in her eye, she reached out and carefully coiled that tuft of hair into a perfect cowlick.

I suppose one might say that this was a lighthearted, even fey gesture, comic relief in the midst of an intense experience. One might even be tempted to say that it ushered in our parenthood with a reminder that one should always see the humorous side of things. One might say these things…but in the spirit of the season I am determined to find something sinister here. So bear with me while I grope…there must be something frightening about playful perkiness…ermm…well…moving on, then.

Horror #3: Schloppity-Schlop

When the baby finally slupped out (see Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax for a contextualized ostensive definition of “slupp”), he did not come out alone. He emerged with a great gush of fluids. And, of course, he trailed this pale blue rubber hose that I was given the opportunity to cut.

Let me say a word about this. My wife may have carried Evan in her body for nine months. She may have been in labor for twenty-five hours. She may have endured more intense pain than I will ever know and had crucial parts of her anatomy stretched and torn and temporarily relocated. All of this may be true. But it was I who cut the cord. So don’t let anyone ever say that I wasn’t involved.

Be that as it may, one of the grim realities of childbirth is that there is a great deal of blood, as well as gluppity-glupp and schloppity-schlop (again, see The Lorax) in various shades of pink and red. And I’m not just talking about the placenta, which Tanya and I studiously examined at Tanya’s request before it was ferreted off to whatever mysterious place placentas go.

You see, there is something they haven’t shown on the season finales of the four hundred and eighty seven TV series that have so far culminated their seasons with a childbirth episode. When all the pushing is over, when all the sweating and straining is done and the newborn baby is resting contentedly on the mother’s breast, someone comes in with a mop.

And in our particular case there was a further reason for distress: they missed a spot.

Horror #4: Worry

When Evan was first born, he decided to give his new parents a bit of a scare (displaying an early affinity for practical jokes). He grunted and wheezed while nurses suctioned his lungs and whacked his back with a device resembling a meat tenderizer. Still he could not seem to get the knack for breathing. While Dr. G was mending ("darning?") my wife with needle and thread on the other side of the room, I hovered over this wheezing little boy, straining to help him breath (to no noticeable effect). Finally the nurses decided they should call the pediatrician and order tests. As soon as this was done, Evan lapsed into comfortable, perfectly normal newborn breathing.

But this early display of vulnerability gave Evan’s new parents all the fuel they needed to construct elaborate reasons to worry and fret. Underdeveloped lungs? Some rare breathing disorder? The dreaded infant sleep apnea? Just in case anyone is wondering, it is not possible to both (a) sleep and (b) check every five minutes to ensure that the baby is still breathing. Fortunately, we came up with an alternative: one of those newfangled baby monitors that comes with a motion detector that is intended to put parent’s minds at ease by going off with a blaring noise every time twenty seconds go by with no noticeable movement.

In fact, the real function of the device is to put the living fear of God into the parents between two and seven times a night. Imagine two sleep deprived people (see horror #5) bursting out of bed, tripping over each other on the way to the crib, groping for the lights and the baby, all to the sound of a blaring alarm. All the fuss inevitably wakes the baby, who has been enjoying (of course) one of his rare moments of continued and restful sleep.

Obsessive attention to Evan’s breathing could not, of course, be separated from paranoia. A typical conversation:

“Hear that little whistling sound when he exhales?”
“That little snoring sound?”
“Is that normal?”
“What does the book say?”
(Leafing furiously through What to Expect in the First Year)
“Here it is. It says that a whistling sound is normal when the baby inhales.”
“But it’s when he exhales that he makes the noise.”
“I know.”
“Should we call the doctor?”
“What if it’s just, like, a cute little noise?”
“What if it’s a symptom of a rare respiratory disorder?”
“Call the doctor.”

Eventually this sort of thing culminated in men showing up at our door with Star Trek tricorders and other assorted medical equipment. The good news is that after a couple of days of having Evan connected by wires to medical recording equipment with alarm devices that went off every twenty minutes with a deafening blare (but, fortunately, only at night), the experts determined that Evan’s lungs were perfectly normal and that there was nothing to worry about. Of course, this did nothing to abate our worry. After all, it was even more frightening to imagine that Evan had a rare lung disorder that could not be detected using ordinary medical devices, and that now that the tests came back normal the medical professional would no longer believe us when we catastrophized…

Horror #5: Sleep Deprivation

Evan, having been born at 2:13 AM, thought initially that nighttime was the time to get active, make noise, be entertained, etc. Between his daytime feedings he would sleep soundly, but then he started waking up around midnight and would be fussy most of the night unless he was being rocked and held. When he was asleep during the day he was impossible to wake up. Thus, the pediatrician’s advice to “keep him awake during the day” proved to be a very nice theory. To be honest, I cannot recall the details. We would sometimes fall into exhausted sleep during the day, but it never quite did the trick.

On the third night home from the hospital—which meant on the sixth night without any real sleep (one night lost to labor, one to giving birth, one to sitting up all night in the hospital bed watching the weather reports about the tornado-producing storms sweeping through Oklahoma, and then three with a wide awake squirmy baby)—Tanya sat up in bed muttering something about the second baby.

“What?” I asked, groping my way out of a foggy half-sleep. “Where’s the second baby?” she asked again. The question made perfect sense to me. The second baby was not in the crib.

(Please note that we do not have twins. Evan is, so far, an only child.)

Of course, the sleep deprivation was far worse for Tanya, who in addition to being exhausted from childbirth was also the baby’s sole food source and hence had to be awake every 2-3 hours no matter what. Occasionally I would find her slumped over a feeding baby, snoring softly. Thankfully this problem endured for only the first few weeks, and by two-and-a-half months Evan was sleeping through the night (meaning from midnight to 4:30 AM). This is a good thing, since it helps us to more effectively confront horrors #6-9.

Horror #6: Pea Soup

21st Century diapers are a technological marvel, swiftly slurping up baby urine and converting it into a gel (subsequently recovered and, I think, turned into toothpaste) that is trapped between the inner and outer layers of material, thus ensuring that the baby and the baby’s clothes are kept perfectly dry. Unfortunately, this technology only works with urine. It does not work with pea soup.

We have become convinced that Evan suffers from an unusual deformity that directs the pea soup straight up the back rather than down into the diaper. And no matter how snug the diaper appears to be across the back, when the pea soup erupts with sufficient force it cannot be contained. When this occurs at home the cleanup process, while time consuming and somewhat smelly (although on rare occasions it actually smells kind of good), is relatively straightforward. Evan, however, prefers to blow out in church. We think that Evan idolizes Cher and wants his public appearances to be characterized by several wardrobe changes in a short period of time. This he guarantees by alternating between blow-outs and projectile vomiting (see horror #7).

The problem has gotten worse recently. Although he only produces pea soup once a day now, he produces just as much in a 24-hour period as he used to. The explosions can often be heard from several blocks away. His most remarkable blow-out occurred not at church but during our family outing to the zoo last month. Upon arriving at the zoo Tanya and I decided to take a quick trip to the restrooms, and Tanya took Evan in with her to change his diaper. I was soon to learn the horror that I had dodged by not being the one to take the baby. But I got a full report.

When I emerged from the men’s room I waited for Tanya and Evan. And waited.

And waited.

Fortunately the changing station was right by the restroom door. This meant that by surreptitiously (and without seeming the least bit creepy) stealing peeks into the women's restroom as others went in and out, I was able to assure myself that my family remained alive.

What I saw were glimpses of Tanya being slapped in the butt by the restroom door. But I could also see that she was working furiously, like a surgeon at the operating table. I knew, of course, that this meant a blow-out. I just had no idea how momentous a blow-out it was. I could see her moving back and forth between the diaper changing station and the trash.

I began to have a sense that something unusual was going on when, after five minutes, Tanya was still not done. After ten minutes, I realized that it was more than just unusual. After twenty minutes, I came to understand that Tanya was struggling valiantly to treat the effects of the diaper-blow-out equivalent of the Mount St. Helens eruption.

Twenty-five minutes later Tanya and Evan finally emerged from the restroom. And I heard the tale—a tale to inspire shock and awe in the heart of any parent. The good news is that the collar of Evan’s shirt had served as a kind of last line of defense in the face of the diaper’s utter failure to stay the tide. The pea soup had surged up against the collar and then rushed back down and out, pooling in his armpits. Of course, the effort to remove the soiled bodysuit from the happily squirming and laughing baby had ensured that any part of his body that had been spared the original explosion would not escaped untouched. Fortunately, there was a full complement of baby wipes in the diaper bag, so that a full body wash was possible. The (formerly) white bodysuit went in the trash.

I recall that the last time I was at the Oklahoma City Zoo I was rather disgusted by some of the antics of the gorillas. I can no longer remember why.

Horror #7: Projective Vomiting

I have often wondered what it must be like to reach the pinnacle of achievement in one’s youth, never again to rise so high or achieve so much again. In the past, when I had these thoughts, I was thinking of gold-medal-winning female gymnasts and prodigies in mathematics. Now, I can only look in wonder at what my own son has achieved in less than half a year of life.

His field: the art of projectile vomiting. Linda Blair, in The Exorcist, may have been a seminal figure in developing this art. But it is our son who has perfected it. He is—and I say this with all due humility—a master. In fact, I sincerely doubt that any will ever come to match him.

His most remarkable moment came in his pediatrician’s office. We were bringing him in with concerns about baby reflux (a deceptive name for a condition that pretty much guarantees that the addition of one baby to the household will multiply the frequency with which laundry is done by precisely 16.2 times). The pediatrician’s nurse cooed and oohed over him, delighting in how cute he was (and he is, I must say, very cute). That was before he soaked her, proving to everyone that he did, in fact, have baby reflux. Unfortunately, he was naked at the time, since he had just been weighed. While we were scurrying around trying to clean the “spit-up” from the floor and walls (rather than dutifully getting his diaper on him again with sufficient promptness), he set his Super Soaker 1000 to work for good measure. It was, at least from the perspective of the baby, a marvelous moment.

Horror #8: The Death-By-Not-Being-Held Syndrome

There are many tragic stories in the world. There are the great tragedies of the ancient Greek playwrights—Media, Antigone, Oedipus Rex—and, of course, Shakespeare’s masterpieces. But of all the tragedies that have ever been recorded, no tale is more devastating than the following tale: There are some moments during the day when, because of parental finitude, Evan is not being held.

One might not realize just how horrific this tragedy is until one hears the gut-wrenching sobs, moans of anguish, wails of despair, and glass-shattering screams that burst forth from Evan’s lungs in response to the experience of this woeful tale. Now there is good news here. Evan’s voice is clearly louder than that of any of the great Wagnerian opera singers alive today, and so we have high hopes that Evan has a grand career in musical theater awaiting him.

Since there is only so much that one can accomplish while holding the baby, it is inevitable that every once in awhile Evan’s parents need to set him down. We have a variety of surrogate baby-holders available for these moments: a bouncer, a baby swing, a Johnny Jump Up, and a “saucer” with a rotating seat that is surrounded by toys.

There is a story going around that babies are soothed by baby swings. Apparently, human genetics is such that every human baby finds comfort in the back-and-forth motion. If this is true, then we have the first piece of evidence that Evan represents a new stage in human evolution. Unless Evan is already fast asleep (in which case the rocking of the swing will keep him asleep for an extra three to four minutes), he finds absolutely no comfort in the swing. Nor is he entertained for long by the dozens of toys that surround him in the saucer (although, to be fair, I must add that this has gotten better over the last few weeks, ever since he’s been able to reach the toys). And although he has discovered how to jump in the Johnny Jump Up, this means that he can better express his outrage at not being held by jumping in fury as he screams.

When we leave the house, Evan is a smiling angel, delighting in all the sights and sounds of the world. He will sit happily in his car seat or stroller for hours. Eating out is never a problem: he’ll sit and watch us cheerfully as we eat, delighted to be out of the house and doing something. Also, when we have visitors he is entertained by the activity, the voices, and the new faces that hover over him and coo. What all of this means is that everyone in Stillwater is struck by what a good baby Evan is.

And he is a good baby. He is good at many things. Screaming, for example.

The fact that he can sit on his own when we are out of the house is our only real reassurance that Evan does not suffer from the dreaded death-by-not-being-held syndrome (see horror #4). We first came to fear that he might have this syndrome one day when, after taking turns carrying the baby for most of the afternoon, we set him in his saucer and he began to cry even before we had let go of his arms. Tanya said, “Come on, Evan. Sitting by yourself for five minutes won’t kill you.”

Even before the words were out of her mouth, we both had the same thought: What if it will? What if Evan suffers from some kind of rare disorder which causes no ill effects so long as he is in constant exposure to the combination of body heat, gentle pressure, and irregular movement that comes with being held? What if his screams when we set him down are exactly what they sound like? What if he is screaming for his very life? And here we are—me at the computer writing this, Tanya washing baby bottles—ignoring this death wail with a frustrated sigh and the dismissive thought that he’s got to learn to entertain himself without being held all the time…

For the sake of accuracy, I must add that he can be happy in his saucer for quite some time if one of his parents is kneeling next to him playing with him and, preferably, singing. I have found myself inventing new songs for his entertainment. For example: Evan has this little blue bear (a gift from his Bestefar—grandfather in English), and the other day I kept him delighted for a full twenty minutes by making the blue bear dance on the rim of his saucer while I sang a song with the following lyrics: “Blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue , blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue BEAR!!!”

Which leads us into horror #9…

Horror #9: A New Soundtrack

I am one of those people who constantly has a tune running through his head. Often I am whistling or humming the tune aloud, but even when that is not the case the tune is still playing and replaying at the back of my mind. A few years ago, Ravel’s Bolero ran through my head for a full three months. Prior to Evan’s arrival, I would usually find myself whistling some Puccini aria or something from the Rolling Stones. Now, it is the Winnie the Pooh song.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the song, the chorus runs as follows: “Winnie the Pooh, Winnie the Pooh, tubby little cubby all stuffed with fluff. He’s Winnie the Pooh, Winnie the Pooh, silly-willie-nillie old bear.”

I did not know this six months ago. Now these words are hard-wired into my brain. The words and music run through my head when I go to bed at night and when I wake up in the morning. They set the rhythm of my lectures. They have become, in a word, the soundtrack of my life.

Horror #10: Babyhood is too short.

Evan’s baby phase is already half-gone, never to return. And despite horrors 1-9, the greatest horror of them all is that it all slips by so fast. His screams, of course, are matched by his laughter. His blow-outs and his projectile vomiting are soon forgotten when he falls asleep in your arms and nestles his head against your breast. When he reaches for your face with both his little hands, latching onto your beard or trapping your nose in his fist, the memory of sleeplessness slips away and all that is left is the memory of holding that tiny little warm bundle against you in the night and gazing down into that perfect face. And when he laughs in delight in response to the strains of Winnie the Pooh, the tune becomes more magical, more wonderful in its way, than anything that Bellini could produce. And yet he is already nearly twice the size he was at his birth, and soon he will be crawling around the house under his own power. The time will fly by, and I will regret every moment that I failed to savor, every second that I let frustration at his screams or his messy bodily fluids obscure the miracle of his life.

So there it is, for what it’s worth: the glories of fatherhood.

1 comment:

  1. Amazingly written. As one who decided not to have children I was "blessed" with a stepdaughter who was apparently quite delightful though very spoiled as an only child. A divorce sent her over the edge, but more so, a mother with no parenting skills and full custody. At 12 this child began huffing. At the age of 14, she went to school drunk for attention. At age 15 she ran away with some drug dealers but being quite crafty, only long enough to not get arrested. At 15 she tried to kill herself by jumping out of our vehicle window because we were taking her skiing. Failing that, she called 911 and reported she was being kidnapped. Failing to prove this, she then beat her father in the car until he was quite wounded. Failing this, she texted her mother and said she would never see her own daughter again. Continuing down a fine path of self destruction, she pierced her face. On her 18th birthday she got a tattoo on her neck. She has completed the ninth grade, worked at McDonald's, and her maternal wealthy family never agreed to put her into drug and alcohol rehabilitation. Instead, they took her to Venice last summer during which time her boyfriend overdosed and died. She hated Venice.Since then she has picked up one possession charge and two speeding tickets and one no-contact order. Suffice it to say, we don't want much to do with this new person. We have no idea who she is. Her mother continues to deny she has a problem and it appears her new husband, who she fished for off the internet by income after growing tired of the poor felon she left her first husband for, is going to flee with his two biological boys. CPS has an open investigation on this entire new family. The biological mother of the two boys would like full custody back instead of shared custody. Of course, joint will work if the stepfather will just flee and choose his boys over this new wife who has already bankrupted him with her addiction to credit cards. So much can just flat out go wrong in this life. But this will not happen to you two. Two stable parents do not produce such a child. This child had one stable parent, but upon the departure of the stable parent against his will, her entire life went haywire. Her biological mother is addicted to prescription pills. She is so self absorbed she refused to breast feed her infant. In short, she is completely mentally ill. However, her good looks have faded and it is doubtful she will be able to ensnare a third man into her web. Then again, people like her get by with their crafty ways all the time. This tragic story is completely true. It is not even complete. Or over.